Commencement audience hears praise for unionism

AFL-CIO president exhorts graduates of UB to `find a cause'

May 26, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Though most of the University of Baltimore graduates seated before him yesterday were receiving degrees from the Merrick School of Business - and probably hoping for good management positions as a result - John J. Sweeney put in a plug for working for a union.

"We pay real money for real work," the president of the AFL-CIO told a commencement gathering at the Lyric Opera House. "But I can assure you the psychic income that comes from making a real difference is worth much more than the money."

Sweeney did have some sympathetic ears amid the sea of caps and gowns, because his audience included the first six graduates of a program administered by UB at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Spring, under which labor leaders and union officials pursue master's degrees in public administration. But that was only 1 percent of the 600 receiving degrees.

"After you've found a job, let me urge you to take a second step and find a cause," Sweeney said, "because this country and this world are counting on you far beyond the earning of a living or the raising of a family.

"I'm one of the luckiest people I've ever known because when I graduated from Iona College more than 45 years ago, I was able to find a job that was a cause," Sweeney said of going to work for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

Sweeney rose to head the Service Employees International Union in 1980 and was elected head of the AFL-CIO in a contested election in 1995. He received an honorary doctor of laws degree from UB yesterday.

He assured the graduates that they have the power to make a difference in the world.

"The history of our country has more often than not turned on the determination of individuals to make a difference, and many of them did it at an age not much older than yours," he said. "Every step up the road of progress in our country - from abolition to women's rights and civil rights and workers' rights, an end to child labor, the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, the right to Social Security and a secure retirement - every step has been taken by individual people, often young people, willing to do extraordinary things."

UB President H. Mebane Turner, who has announced that he will step down next year, noted that the graduates included residents of 33 states and numerous foreign countries. He pointed out that friends and family at home could watch the ceremony over the Internet; the school's first webcast was of its December commencement.

Also yesterday, graduates of the University of Maryland, Baltimore received degrees at the Baltimore Arena, hearing from Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

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